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Preparing Trees & Plants for Winter

by Elmer on 11/16/2010
Peach Tree with Tree Guard

Each year is divided into four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Plants and trees experience life cycles through these seasons. For human beings, life cycles occur every day. We require a certain amount of rest each day (we call it sleep) to function the following day. The amount and quality of our rest helps to determine how healthy and productive we are. Most trees “sleep” each winter (we call it their dormancy period). The amount and quality of their rest also determines how healthy and productive they are! Let’s take a few minutes to talk about preparing for winter and making this dormancy period the best it can be for your plants and trees.

Outdoor Plants and Trees

Insulation

Tree Circles help insulate roots

It is important to protect the root systems of young plants and trees. This can easily be achieved by applying a layer of mulch on top of the soil around the root system*. Mulch, which can be comprised of natural things like wood chips, leaf/yard compost, sawdust, or straw, acts as an insulator that protects the roots when the temperature drops in late fall/winter/early spring. Mulch also acts as a weed deterrent and helps retain moisture during the growing season. Laying down a barrier, like Tree Circles, and covering the barrier with mulch is a simple means to avoid a number of problems at the root level all year long.

*Be sure not to pile mulch around the trunk, to avoid potentially harmful issues like creating an environment for rot or nibbling-critter damage.

Depredation

Tree Guards protect tree trunks

As summer comes to a close, the grass and ground-covers toughen, moving rabbits to chew on tree bark. This destructive threat increases with cold weather and snow cover. On the farm, outbuildings, clutter and ground-cover provide adequate cover to house this animal. In urban settings, landscaping, hedges, and ground-cover provide the same housing and can be even worse than the rural setting. It’s heartbreaking to grow and nurture plants and trees along, only to wake one morning to find them girdled to death or impaired for life by hungry critters.

Rabbits can chew trees way up into their fifth and sixth season. Simple and inexpensive solutions that can be applied in mere seconds are Tree Guards. These wraps also afford protection to the trunk by reflecting the winter sun’s rays. Most winter damage to the tree’s trunk is from getting warmed up on bright, sunny winter days. At nightfall, the trunk often doesn’t adjust to the sudden temperature drop. Tree Guards are a must!

Container Plants and Trees

Folks who live in small quarters (or just choose to grow plants and trees in containers) come to a crossroad when the nighttime temperatures fall below 15ºF. The problem is this: when the temperature dips to 20ºF and stays there for a while, it’s possible to freeze the core roots of the plants. Until you decide to bring the plants inside, you should thoroughly water the pots prior to cold snaps. This will help protect the roots. It’s easier for freeze damage to occur in a dry container than in a wet container!

When the weather gets cold, and you are working toward winterizing, you can move your container plants into an unheated garage or shed. Prior to moving, thoroughly water the pots. If a plant is cold-hardy, you can leave it outside by mounding 4-6 inches of mulch around and over the top of the pot — heavy enough to provide a protective barrier around the pot. Prior to mounding, you should adequately water the pot. For added protection, consider using some type of rodent bait in the sawdust or mulch to avoid mice depredation.

Keep in mind, some container plants need to be transferred inside because they may not be cold hardy for the zones in which they are planted. Such is the case with Asian Persimmon trees for folks in zones 4-5. Here at Stark Bro’s, we’ve been winterizing our persimmon trees by transferring 100 10-gallon pots inside for over 10 years*. If you love this fruit but live in a zone-challenged area, know that these plants adapt and fruit well in a containerized situation — as long as they are moved inside for the winter months.

* 2014 Update: These trees are now in 15-gallon containers!

How well we balance our sleep life with our work life can help determine the quality of our senior years. Since a plant endures four seasons each year, its rest period and our care can determine both its performance and longevity.

– Elmer

Read more about winter protection for plants and trees »

Topics → Planting & Growing, Tips

51 Comments

  1. John S.Henchey permalink

    Is it too late for ordering and planting Hydrangeas (100129) in Oklahoma this year. Will Wisconsin Weeping Willows(0632) grow well in Oklahome,If so is it too late for this year?

    • Judy permalink

      Hello John, thanks for the questions! The answer to both is a rousing “no, it is not too late to order & plant in Oklahoma.” :) Fall is an ideal time to plant in your area. If you are going to plant Hyrangeas, I recommend you plant them where they won’t get constant full sun in the summer. (Some late-afternoon shade should keep them very happy!) The Wisconsin Weeping Willow will do very well for you, just as long as it gets plenty of water. Weeping Willow trees grow at their very best along the banks of a pond or river. I hope you enjoy the beauty of the hydrangea & the Weeping Willow for many years to come!

  2. Bob Dodson permalink

    I have one of your fig trees in a container. I usually wait for the moderately cold weather (down to just below freezing at night) to take the leaves off it and then move it into a garage where it is never below freezing. I water lightly through the winter. When is the right time to bring this container back out again, and is there any other special treatment I should be giving it? Thank’s.

    • Sheila Beers permalink

      I should think it would be safe to bring out the container in the spring when daytime temperatures are above freezing and gradually get the plant accustomed to sunlight. I also should think it would be wise to put the container back in the garage at night until the night-time temperatures are above freezing. I also would keep the container watered well.

      • Gary Tune permalink

        I just planted two Chicago Hardy Figs yesterday. I’m anxious to see how they do next Spring. Also planted a couple of Paw Paws and Mulberry. I’m excited about my orchard. (including apples and peaches)

        • Dale permalink

          Hi, where are you? I planted a fig in the fall in Charlottesville va two years ago and the next spring noticed a vole had eaten the young roots. I mulched it heavily which made for a warm place for the vole. Don’t know how to keep this from happening?
          Dale

    • Judy permalink

      Hello Bob,

      After your fig tree has wintered in your garage, you will want to take it back to its permanent summer home when the daytime temperatures stay above 45º F. Best wishes!

  3. i live in kentucky and my peach tree bore fruit this yr.. i need to know what month now i should trim it. i have purchased a pump so when do i spray the vegatable oil on it… do i trim my apple trees the same time i do the peach???

    thanks
    R.H.GRANT

    • Sheila Beers permalink

      I should think you would prune fruit trees in the fall when they are finished bearing fruit.

    • Judy permalink

      Hello Mr. Grant, I’m very happy to hear that you received your first crop of peaches this year!

      Regarding pruning your fruit trees, I recommend you wait until late February to prune your trees. And yes, you will want to prune your apple tree at the same time you prune the peach tree. If you are going to spray your fruit trees with a dormant oil (this is a horticultural oil – NOT vegetable oil), it would be wise to do that right now and they will be protected throughout the winter. :)

  4. My son purchased a lemon tree from Starks this year and we were wondering what we should be doing with it? We’ve brought it inside in placed it in a sunny window. Is that the right thing to do?

    • Sheila Beers permalink

      You were wise to bring the lemon tree in and to place it in a sunny window. Please keep the plant watered sufficiently, but do not over-water it.

      • Barbara permalink

        I am new to gardening. I purchased a lemon tree also and brought it indoors before the temps dipped below 60 at night. It has one lemon which is a fair size but still green, and has bloomed with 6 or 7 new little lemons. In the past two weeks the leaves are falling like crazy. What am I doing wrong? It’s in a sunny window and I am watering. Should I pick the one larger lemon? Will it get yellow?

        • Hi Barbara,

          Citrus trees, especially ones grown in containers and moved between the inside and the outside environments, can be finicky and are prone to dropping their leaves at the first signs of stress. The leaf drop is more than likely due to the change in environment (going from living outdoors to living indoors) — the good news is, the tree will bounce back from this once it adjusts and it will put on new leaves.

          It’s easy to over-water citrus trees in containers, especially if the material of the container isn’t porous, like plastics. You should only water the tree when the soil is dry to the touch an inch or two below the surface. Also, be sure there are adequate drainage holes in the bottom of the pot to avoid root issues caused by poor drainage or standing water.

          One thing you might consider is mimicking the humidity of the outdoor environment for your lemon tree while it’s inside. You can do this by spraying water on the tree and soil surface using the mist setting of a spray bottle. You don’t have to soak the tree or soil, just spray enough to mist the tree’s environment. This helps because, typically, the air indoors is much drier than it is outdoors.

          The tree should put on more vegetative growth (leaves) soon, so you can leave the lemons to grow on the tree. The larger one will eventually turn yellow. Some lemons can take several months to ripen from green to yellow, but they will grow in size in the meantime. Fruit-set can stress the tree as well, so, if the tree’s condition appears to worsen, it would be best to remove the fruit to allow the tree to put its energy toward growing well rather than setting fruit.

    • Judy permalink

      Hi Leanne,

      Bringing your lemon tree indoors was exactly the correct thing to do. Placing it in a sunny window is where it needs to be. Citrus trees need at least 8 hours of light per day. You will want the temperature to range from a daytime high of 70º to a nighttime low of 55º. It sounds like you are doing all of the proper things to help the lemon tree flourish!

  5. Donald permalink

    Leanne: I live in wisconsin and I have Orange , lemon, and Tangerine trees. I bring them in the house every winter and they are doing great. I have had some nice big Oranges this year and there are more on the tree. my Tangerines and Lemons are starting to fruit too.A bright sunny southern facing room or a corner room with south and east will be fine.I am taking cuttings every winter in March and I use an empty, clear 2 litre bottle with the bottom cut off and a round tupperware container filled with planting mix. The small branches that grow out from the underneath of other branches are what I take for cuttings. A dip in rooting hormone and place in the moist soil will give you new rooted plants by may, to share with your friends.I gave 7 away this past spring and one that I gave my cousin’s wife 4 years ago has Oranges on it already.Enjoy your tree ripened oranges they are delicious.

    • Donald permalink

      P.S. The 2 litre Soda bottle and Tupperware containers make great little windowsill “mini Greenhouses”.

  6. Leon permalink

    when i recived my trees from you there was a green plastic tape around some of the trees near the bace or above the bace about 8″ what are they for and do i take them of the trees . thanks Leon

    • Meg permalink

      Hi Leon! The green tape was used to train the trees in our orchards & can be removed. :)

  7. Linda Clark permalink

    I purchased some apple, peach and plum trees this year and planted them in pots. It is starting to get cold here at night with a few nights already in the teens and 20s but others in 30s and 40s. Should I bring the trees in now, wait a bit longer or…? Also, do I water them through the winter? At what point in the Spring should I put them back outside?

    • Have your trees lost all their leaves yet? This is typically their signal to us that they are going dormant. You will want to wait until they have gone dormant before you decide to move them into an unheated location like a garage or shed or basement.

      You shouldn’t have to water them very much throughout the winter because they’re not taking in as much water as they would during the growing season. They will need to be watered if the soil appears dry and is not moist if you stick your finger below the top couple inches of soil. This watering method will protect the roots from winter injury.

      When temperatures start to warm up again in the spring, or when you start to see life in other outdoor plants, it will be your signal to move your container trees outside again so they can wake up with nature! :)

  8. Josie permalink

    I have a potted cherry tree in Indianapolis, where we have already seen multiple nights of very cold weather. By bringing it into the garage with no light, is this OK for the tree? Also, will this shock it by going from bright light to no light?

    • Unless the cherry tree is out of its recommended growing zone, the cold weather shouldn’t be harmful, especially if you mulch over the soil in the container and keep the soil from becoming too dry. Like the article states: “It’s easier for freeze damage to occur in a dry container than in a wet container!”

      If your zone is too cold for your cherry tree, you might want to protect the tree from the winter elements – and your garage is a good place to do that. The light change won’t shock the tree. In fact, low light is equally as important as cool temperatures to trigger and maintain dormancy. Just remember to move the tree back outdoors once things begin to warm and come to life again in spring.

  9. Scarlett Bissette permalink

    I have two kiwi plants (a male and a female) and the female has lots of blossoms every spring, but the male only has 4 or 5 blossoms. I have not had any kiwis yet and the plants are 5 or more years old. I have checked with the local agricultural department and they don’t know the answer. I was wondering if you would know why the male doesn’t bloom as it should.

    • It really depends on the variety you’re growing, the location the vine is planted, and the pruning it receives. Light is a major factor in blooming and fruit production, so if your male vine is in a shaded location, or if it is not receiving regular pruning to keep it open to light, you may have found the cause for minimal flower production in your male — even if both vines are receiving the exact same care and the female is performing well.

      Here is a video about pruning hardy kiwi from Edible Landscaping that you might find useful: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyQa5fy1IfE

      The only other thing I can think of is that the male vine just isn’t mature enough yet. This can only be remedied by allowing it more time. Some kiwi growers note that their male vines don’t start flowering until their 7th year — after which they take off and bloom like crazy!

  10. Nick Rust permalink

    I planted two of your peach trees (different varieties) two years ago, last spring I purchased two apple trees from you and the white tree wraps for the peaches. Later, about mid summer, I saw a sawdust on one tree. I took off the wraps and have several holes and whitish “grubs” in each tree , presumably from “Peach tree borers” . The plastic wraps seem to have made a perfect hiding place for these pests to go undetected much of the summer.
    How do I (or can I ) save these two trees?

    • There are a few ways to control peach tree borers:

      1. Manually remove borer grubs if they’re already present. You can do this by inserting thin wire into the borer holes in the trunk and digging them out.

      2. Use a pesticide like Borer-Miner Killer if borers are prominent. Be sure to thoroughly coat the trunk and base of the tree. Apply three times throughout spring and early summer (avoid spraying all pesticides during bloom time when bees are present). We recommend the last two applications about July 1st and July 15th.

      Missouri Botanical Garden also recommends: “Spray or paint only the trunk and lower limbs with either carbaryl (Sevin) or endosulfan (Thiodan) in the first half of May and again in the first half of August as a preventative.”

      3. Routinely examine your trees. Peach trees thrive from mid-summer and dormant-season pruning, and these are ideal times to give your trees an all-around check up. This will help you keep on top of their health status and help you be successful with the other two suggestions!

  11. Tracy permalink

    I have 4 apple trees, 6 plum trees, 1 peach, 2 cherry and 2 nectarine trees. All for zone 5 which they say we live in. They are saying that this winter is going to be bad with possible temps down to -40 below air temp, (not wind chill temp). I have straw down for mulch and they have tree guards on them. Is there anything else I can do to keep them safe if it does get that cold?

    • You are doing a great job to protect your trees from harsh winter Tracy! Since you’re already following the recommendations we suggest in this article about protecting fruit trees from a harsh winter, the only other thing I can think to recommend is keeping adamant about maintaining the protection you provide.

      Believe it or not, maintaining winter protection is an ongoing process, just like pulling weeds and watering happens routinely during the growing season. Be sure that the straw is not blown or dragged away, and don’t be afraid to add an extra layer of straw mulch if there is going to be exceptionally low temperature drops (especially below zero). You can always rake away and compost or repurpose what you no longer need for mulch when the weather warms again in spring.

      Oh, and I know some folks even build temporary cages around young trees and pack the space between the cage and the tree with straw as well, to insulate the trunk and growth above the ground. This could be especially effective on peach and nectarine trees (and even certain plums and cherries) that tend to be naturally less cold hardy than trees like apples.

      • Tracy permalink

        Thank you so much for your reply. I am glad to know that I am doing what I can. I would sure hate to lose these trees. They are doing so good. They are from Stark Bros Nursery. I do have cages around some of these trees with the mulch inside, I will get cages around the rest of them with the mulch inside before winter sets in. Thank you again for your quick reply, we appreciate it. I will continue to buy from Stark Bros. I have purchased trees from an outlet that was cheaper and I found out the hard way, this was not the way to go. Those trees all showed up dead or they died within days of planting them. I will never do that again. Stark Bros. has the best trees and I will buy only from Stark Bros. from now on.

  12. Charles Riggs permalink

    Greetings
    My home is in Fletcher, Oklahoma. I was interested in 3 different varieties of cherry. The bing, The Royalton, and the Starking Hardy giant Antique sweet cherry. I see where you have grafted 3 in 1 type of tree. Would you be able to do that for me with these 3 types?

    • Hi Charles – Stark Bro’s had a 3-N-1 Cherry tree years ago, but we only offer a 2-N-1 Cherry tree now, which has the Van sweet cherry and Stark® Gold sweet cherry varieties grafted to it.

      Unfortunately, we don’t graft our trees “build to order”, since it takes 2 years from start to finish and – with a living product that depends on weather and other factors – our success isn’t guaranteed. We wouldn’t want to come up short, especially when you’ve had to wait for a finished product, so we offer the varieties we’ve had the most success with grafting and growing together on one tree, keeping hardiness and pollination in mind.

      It’s good feedback to hear about the varieties people would like to grow on one tree so we can consider it going forward, so thank you for asking! :)

  13. Scott Black permalink

    Is it better to plant chestnut trees in the spring or fall and which month. I live in northern Ohio

    • Do you do any tree planting in the fall? If so, you should be able to plant chestnut trees in the fall as well with no problem. The only bump in the road may be if your ground is usually frozen by November, because this is when we ship our chestnut trees to be planted in the fall. If your ground is typically frozen by then, you might need to plant chestnut trees in the spring instead – usually around late-March to mid-April (or later by request).

  14. I purchased a wistera (sp) tree from Stark, the first year it frosted after blooming and killed the bloom. This summer (2nd) year it “bushed” all out with many branches and foilage but no bloom. When and how do I prune it to get the best results for next summer? Thanks.

    Ancil

  15. kamal permalink

    I was wondering if you have pomegranate trees

  16. Doc Carmicheal permalink

    I have not planted trees in the fall here in Iowa. We are at the margin. Some maps have us in zone 4 and maps in zone 5. Am interested in adding a couple chestnuts and need to replace 2 bing cherries that died after planting this spring. Do you think November or wait til spring? Ground is not usually frozen until near Christmas. Also can make sure by covering/insulating ground where new plants ate going so ground can’t freeze.

    • If our site says you’re in a zone 5, then you have the option to plant in fall or spring – it’s completely up to you!

      I will say that if you think you’ll be able to work your soil in November, why not give fall planting a try this year? :) Of course, if you’re simply more comfortable planting in the spring, you are more than welcome to have your trees ship to you in the spring instead.

  17. alan rider permalink

    How do I protect fruit buds in the Spring when the temperature drops at night. This year we had no apples on any trees including several trees that always produce.

    • This past spring was a harsh one, that’s a fact! When it comes to fickle springs and late frosts, you can try wrapping the trees with holiday lights that give off an ambient warmth – the small difference in temperature may be the difference between fruit-bud damage and blooms! Some folks also cover their trees in lightweight fabric sheets (cotton or something breathable is best), but since this method is effective by trapping heat as it leaves the soil, be sure that the sheets you use reach the ground.

  18. Todd permalink

    When is the best time (s) to apply dormant spray to my apple trees? I bought them this past spring and they are doing great. Should I spray them now and again in the spring or just once in the spring?

    • The dormant oil spray is intended for use in winter or early spring for proactive care. Specific spraying information (like amount, timing, and frequency) can vary based on the weather and the trees, but, fortunately, that information is included on the label of the product you’re using. ;)

  19. Elizabeth permalink

    Awesome! I bought a dwarf rhobada apricot this year– which arrived as a STICK, but now has big beautiful leaves on it, hurray!– and planted it in a pot, so I was wondering what I should do with it this winter.

    Also, is winter a good time to prune trees? The top tip of my main trunk has a good 3-4 inches which never had bud break or put on any sort of leaves. Should I prune this off? Or is there a chance it could put on new buds next spring?

    • If you are in an area that is outside of the recommended hardiness zones for the Robada Apricot tree (zones 5-8), then you may need to move your container-grown tree into an unheated garage/shed/basement during the winter for protection. If your winters aren’t very harsh and the temperatures don’t frequently drop below freezing (or worse, below 0!), then you may leave your container-grown tree outdoors through winter.

      Regardless of where you decide to keep your tree through winter, make sure that the soil in the container doesn’t dry out. Freeze damage to the root system is more of a risk for container-grown trees and it’s easier for damage to occur in dry soil than it is for it to occur in damp soil. You don’t need to keep the soil constantly soaked, but when the soil is dry to the touch, give the tree a drink to keep it hydrated.

      Winter or early spring (before the tree wakes up from its dormant sleep) is a great time to prune every year! However, if you find any dead limbs, it’s best to remove those as soon as possible. There is no benefit to the tree to support the “dead weight”, so be sure to prune the dead top back until you find living tissue. You can determine whether the top is living or not by scratching the outer layer of bark where you think it may be dead. If you find brown, dry, brittle tissue beneath your scratch, the wood is dead there. If you find whitish-green, damp tissue beneath your scratch, it is actually still living and may bud out next growing season. :)

  20. Sarah M. permalink

    I always enjoy these blogs!

    I have a tangelo tree that I kept on my covered deck most of this summer, and it developed a black smutty film on the leaves. I sprayed it with a fungicide, and later, carefully cleaned the leaves (partially) and placed in our backyard, still in the pot. This fall, when the temperature dropped (it is really cold in Zone 7A now) almost all the leaves fell off when I put the tree in the garage. From prior experience, I know the leaves will come back, but what can I do to prevent the black smutty stuff? Also, the leaves were curled… Please help me to keep my tree healthy. Thank you!

    • I’m wondering if your tangelo has/had a scale or aphid or other similar pest infestation, especially since these are common issues for citrus trees. These pests suck the juices of the leaves (often crumpling or curling the leaves in the process) and they secrete a “honeydew” substance that becomes the sooty mold you’re likely describing. The fungicide and manually cleaning the leaves is exactly what I would have recommended to treat the sooty mold issue, but if the pest persists, you’ll need to get rid of them as the cause.

      To avoid re-inventing the wheel, I’m going to share a great article from UC Davis here on managing sooty mold as well as the pests that cause it:
      http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74108.html

      I’m glad you enjoy our blog, and I hope this helps! :)

  21. Andy Boyd permalink

    Everyone talks about putting their tree in a container. What size container is used for Figs or blueberrys? Can peach trees be grown so they will produce in containers or plums or paw-paws? Thanks!

    • You can grow just about any fruit tree in a container as long as you still accommodate the tree’s needs. The container size depends on the current root system of the tree you’re planting. It needs to fit the root system with some room to grow; don’t start off too small or too large – you will “pot up” as needed as the tree grows, so don’t talk yourself into a fancy decorative pot either.

      I’ve had success starting with 3- to 5-gallon containers for my potted fruit trees (depends on the respective root systems) and I’ve moved them up to 7- and 10-gallon containers as they’ve outgrown their smaller pots. I’ve used light-weight plastic containers, nothing fancy, and I’ve been sure to drill extra holes in the bottom and lower sides to ensure proper water drainage. I hope this helps you Andy!

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